Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Pierce a Heart: Risking Sentimentality in Carey Salerno's Shelter

A lot of first books of poetry are byline-heavy. Flip to the back cover of nearly any first book and look at the description next to the author's picture. You'll often see a long list of chapbooks, journals, some anthologies, and likely a degree or two. This is, of course, true for most books of poetry, though as a poet becomes more well known, he/she sometimes trims the bio-data down to near minimalist proportions (see Michael Dickman's bio for his James Laughlin Award winning collection, Flies: "Michael Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon." Seriously, that's the whole thing.) But for first books, the author bio of the unknown poet needs to help sell the book and the poet, in order to get a contract, often needs a hefty bio/acknowledgments page to get the book published. Which was why I was shocked when I flipped to the back of Shelter (Alice James Books, 2009), the first book by Carey Salerno, and found the following byline:
Carey Salerno has an MFA from New England College. Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared in Rattle and Natural Bridge. She lives in Boston.
A quick flip to the acknowledgments page found just as little information: a brief thank you to unnamed family, editors, mentors, friends and classmates and an acknowledgement that one of the forty six poems in Shelter had previously appeared in Rattle (and was an honorable mention for the Rattle 2006 Poetry Prize).

Then I started reading the book and had to ask why literary journals weren't scooping these poems up?

Shelter is a book length sequence of poems that takes place in an animal shelter. The speaker of the poems takes us through the lives of the people who work at shelters, cleaning up after the animals, helping people who bring in strays or runaways or hit-and-runs and, often, putting unwanted or injured or feral animals to sleep. The poems are, in one word, haunting. In another word, they are gorgeous. Salerno's use of language and lyricism in her narratives, almost all of which are written in un-rhymed couplets, is brutally and emotionally honest. And she sets the tone of the book immediately with the opening poem, "Fledgling." Here, two shelter workers, Tina and the speaker, are euthanizing seven kittens and the mother. "Kittens," she writes:
             velvet skeletons, wither
in my hands, cumbersome skulls

drooping without muscle.
The sonic effect of this three line description is both sorrowful (the way the kittens "wither/ in my hands") and resentful (especially the adjective "cumbersome"). And it is this duality of the job that permeates the entire collection. See the poem "Certification," in which an unnamed "she" attempts to get a syringe in a drugged cat's leg in order to be certified, the character ever "focusing/ on the twenty-five cent raise." And then, at the end, the poem's rage bubbles over:
                 Compassion: the slabbed certificate
on the wall reads so. In the name

of all holies she, he, anyone will-
ing to work for minimum wage may kill.
And then there is the poem "Asylum" (the sole poem mentioned in the book's Acknowledgments page), in which the speaker tries to capture a room full of feral cats and ends up drenching them all with cold water, "dous[ing] every/ pair of eyes I could see." The poem opens by saying, "I still hate myself for what I did" but it turns two-thirds of the way through the poem:
                                                        I hated them
because they were homeless ungrateful bastards, who had

created other bastards to replace them before they got here.
Because they could look me in the eye with no shame

or request for love ...
The rage in "Asylum" drenches the reader the way the speaker drenches the cats, but it is always complicated by that opening statement, "I still hate myself for what I did," which makes the final line, the harsh epiphanic truth the speaker conjures from this experience, all the more brutal (for the animals, for the speaker, and for us reading the poem):
              They snarled and swung out long
claws, curled around my hand as if

playing. I wanted to break that spirit.
Shelter does this over and over, placing us within the emotional landscape of a minimum wage worker dealing with the life and death of animals, doing dangerous, dirty and psychically damaging work. And it succeeds for the very reason the ending of "Asylum" and the ending of "Certification" succeed. It doesn't shy away from being sentimental in its descriptions and in the spaces it takes the reader. Instead, it remains completely honest and, in so doing, remains completely complicated. When Salerno pulls at the reader's heartstrings, when she effectively says, "look at how horrible this is... don't you feel sad?" we, as readers buy that sadness because it is surrounded by very real, very complicated images and descriptions. And because it is almost always accompanied by a counter emotion (rage, boredom, disdain, etc...)

This is not to say everything in Shelter is harrowing. Not all the poems take place in the e-room (euthanasia room). There are moments of euphoric joy placed perfectly among the terrors of the stacked bodies of dead animals. When reading "Skipping Stones," I couldn't help but smile and think warm, fuzzy thoughts about my own pets. This poem takes the speaker out of the shelter and to the beaches of Lake Michigan with her dog, a stray she has decided to take home. "Kennel rules disintegrate," Salerno writes, and the rules of the book also disintegrate as we get a series of snapshots of an owner and her pet acting as we might see them on a nice Animal Planet show. "You'll jump over the seat onto my back/," she writes, "and howl and drool and snivel..." And then, the ending image of the owner "watch[ing] you tear down the vacant beach."

But, it should be noted, "Skipping Stones" is a poem that treks dangerously close to the sort of sentimentality we as readers are supposed to be so wary of. Salerno keeps us reading, though, because the shelter remains in the background of even this joyous poem (she mentions the e-room twice in this sixteen line poem).

So I return to the question that started this review. Why aren't/didn't these incredible poems pop up in the best journals around the world? Perhaps we're so afraid of sentimentality that anything that remotely looks like it is simply set aside without question. Or, perhaps, it is just too much of a taboo to write about pets, no matter the actual content/context of the poems.

I remember attending a reading by Sharon Olds where she commented that she often had trouble publishing her poems because, in the paraphrased words of the editors of the time, "poems about mothers and children are better suited for magazines like Women's Day." I thought of that as I read Shelter and I thought of how many journals explicitly state (seriously or sarcastically) that they don't want to see any poems "about your dead cat." It is a common topic, especially among young writers. After four years of reading submissions for GlassI can attest to that. But Salerno shows that poems about dead or dying animals can be good when, you know, they're well written.

There is something about this collection that seems to require people to push it beyond its surface subject, though. One of the book's blurbs, written by Michael Waters, describes the book by saying, "Abu Ghraib haunts these lines as the shelter takes on harrowing, allusive dimensions, and as the narrator weighs her burden of complicity." I can certainly see what he is saying here. Look again at the lines quoted above from "Asylum" and you can see how easy it is to turn the feral cats into a metaphor for the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and how easy it is to turn the shelter workers into a metaphor for the soldiers and interrogators there. And reading through some of the poems, I definitely found myself wanting to take notes on the many issues of class appearing throughout the book (see "Certificate" again or the poems "Boss" and "Burnout"). I instinctively wanted to turn those notes into an argument about the Great Recession and how desperate people are having to do (and are becoming willing to do) terrifying things they never would have imagined doing.

But I stopped myself. Because this book isn't about the Great Recession or Abu Ghraib. And as wonderful as it is to make vitriolic statements about the economic and international horrors of the past decade, Shelter doesn't need those contextualizations to be a horrifically beautiful collection of poems. It doesn't need to "really be about Abu Ghraib" because being about an animal shelter is enough. These poems work, not because they speak to larger news headlines. They work because they are written by a skilled poet with an incredible eye for detail and an incredible ear for language.

I started reading Shelter two days after my pet, Gwen, was put to sleep. She was eleven years old and had suffered from a seizure disorder for eight of those years. The vast majority of her life was wonderful but her last day was the scariest of my life. She had numerous seizures in the span of a few hours, including one on the car ride to the emergency animal hospital where I was taking her to be put down. I have had bad experiences at that hospital. I won't go into detail but will simply say that I felt the workers weren't exactly compassionate. But that night they were beyond compassionate as I bawled my eyes out about my dying cat.

I can see why editors would be uneasy about poems about dead pets. I can already feel myself going to that bad place all poets fear, the place where craft and image and surprise are swept aside by the flooding emotions. And I know that poets and cats go together like peanut butter and chocolate so I know there are thousands of poets with thousands of dead cat poems bumping around in their heads.

But I read Shelter as I grieved the loss of my pet. And it was very difficult. But it was worth it because it gave me a clear insight into the lives of the people working on the front lines of America's pet landscape. It did so with poems that foreground craft and image and surprise all while not shying away from flooding emotions. To me, that is enough to make me want to re-read Shelter. I don't need explanations about why the poems "really matter" in the 21st century. All I need are poems like "Fledgling," the opening poem and the one I mentioned earlier about the two workers euthanizing the mother cat and her seven kittens. If you want to know why Shelter matters, you need only read that poem, read the ending as Tina moves to euthanize the mother cat:
                                   She doesn't fight
as Tina draws closer, knowing

the angle at which to pierce a heart.
See, Shelter really matters because it's really good and really smart and really complicated. No matter the length of the author's bio or her acknowledgments page.

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